The Rolling Stone Fallout and What This Means for Rape Victims

I've been following the fall-out of the Rolling Stone article a Rape on Campus as well as their evolving preamble to the story, first expressing doubt, then seemingly dismissing Jackie's account, now falling somewhere in-between with assertions that they have supporting evidence that Jackie was assaulted that night, but no idea of the details. I got a visit from some overly gleeful commenters that seemed to rejoice that the story is a hoax, and Jackie a liar, but it's clear this situation is more complex. The story contained more than Jackie's experience, and the focus of our original discussion on the article still is valid. That is, universities and colleges are using internal sexual assault boards to avoid Clery act reporting, and suppress the real numbers and problem of sexual assault on campus. This was largely based on my experience as an undergraduate (albeit over a decade ago) working on such panels and finding them disturbing on many levels. The Cavalier daily features an editorial from a friend of Jackies asking for support because her experience with her in her freshman year was consistent with Jackie's story, she had an abrupt and negative change in her behavior and shared with her it was from a sexual assault. This is not a hoax, but the story of a hurt and confused girl who was done a disservice by Rolling Stone in their failure to independently confirm the details of her case.

What form should that confirmation have taken? I wrongly believed they had independently confirmed details of that night with Jackie's friend. To WaPo's credit, they did real reporting and tracked down those sources who should have provided the confirmation for Erderly's story. Interestingly it is a mixture of confirmation that something happened to Jackie that night, but also that she had exaggerated in the retelling. My main objection in categorizing the early objections to the article as a smear was that it was largely based on an an armchair critique by Richard Bradley that it just sounded wrong. Granted, that should be the basis for investigation, but not dismissal of the claims. Liz Seccuro, a rape victim while at UVA whose rapist is now in prison was similarly upset by his position that the details were too shocking, and therefore unlikely. Her words a powerful response to his article:

Unlike most people who read the article, I was not shocked by it; I was gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi at UVA in 1984. My story was a small part of the article, for which I spent hours speaking with Erdely from July through November. I was encouraged that my story — a very public one in the last eight years — would be told again in order to give context to the eerily similar rape of Jackie, the student victim in Erdely’s story.
Over 30 years ago, I told my own story to then student journalist Gayle Wald, who wrote extensively of my rape in the now defunct UVA newspaper, the University Journal. I asked that she use a pseudonym (Kate) for me, and, like Jackie, I begged her not to interview the one man I knew had raped me, as I feared repercussions. There were two other attackers whose names I did not know. When I went to the dean of students at that time, Robert Canevari, I was covered in bruises, still bloodied, and had broken bones. He sat at his big desk across from me and suggested I was a liar and had mental problems for reporting my rape. Some of my new friends told me not to tell, that no one would believe me, that I would ruin my own reputation and that of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”

Former George journalist Richard Bradley fired the first shot at the Rolling Stone story. “I’m not sure that this gang rape actually happened,” he wrote in a blog post, using brilliant plagiarist Stephen Glass (whom he edited, and who duped him) as a comparison base for the idea that astounding and uncomfortable stories must be fabricated. Though Bradley’s rant was on his personal blog, doubts have now burbled up at established outlets. Jonah Goldberg shares his opinion in an incredibly dismissive piece at the Los Angeles Times — “Much of what is alleged (though Erdely never uses the word ‘alleged’) isn’t suitable for a family paper,” he writes, as if the brutality of an assault could possibly be a measure of its veracity. (His colleague Meghan Daum was more reasonable.) Slate’s Alison Benedikt and Hanna Rosin, posted a thoughtful piece and podcast that asks the journalistic questions without doubting that brutal gang rapes happen.

And that’s what’s missing in all of this: the distinction between discussing journalism ethics and dismantling an important discussion because the subject matter seems extremely distressing. Wholesale doubt or dismissal of a rape account because it sounds “too bad to be true” is ridiculous. Is it easier to believe a rape by a single stranger upon a woman in a dark alley? What about marital rape? What if a prostitute is raped? Just how bad was it? We should not have a rape continuum as part of the dialogue, ever.

So, yes, gang rape happens, it happens today on college campuses, just look at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilts recent experiences, or mass druggings of girls at a frat party. Just because her allegations were shocking was not a good reason to disbelieve them. Just ask Liz Seccuro. Her experience was too similar to just dismiss such allegations based on gut-feelings, and have been confirmed subsequently by an admission by one of her attackers and a criminal conviction. I still believe that this was wrong, and my original complaint that, "Not on any independent investigation, sourcing or facts, they’re smearing this victim." I still think that's shoddy reporting and that statement came before I had the Washington Post's real reporting which came later. What the Washington Post performed was actual journalism, and they successfully demonstrated that yes, there were real problems with Jackie's facts in this story. However, it's wrong to say that her story is a "hoax" as the same reporting suggests she was found distraught that night, claimed that she had been assaulted (although with notably different details - no visible injury, claims of being forced to perform oral sex etc.), but more likely her story has been exaggerated in the retelling rather than completely fabricated as many have gleefully crowed in the comments of this and other blogs. Sorry MRAs, her story can't be dismissed as a hoax, and before we had the data that the Post had, it was unfair to dismiss this story simply because it didn't conform to what one thinks such stories should sound like. Bradley was right in this instance, but only because he got lucky, he would have been really off if he had been in charge of Liz Seccuro's story.

My second critique was that in cases such as this there is no benefit of seeking "balance" by interviewing the alleged rapists, and this is a source of legitimate debate among journalists and survivors like Seccuro who believe it will further make coming forward more difficult for fear of retribution. I don't know what is the right answer or that there is a uniform protocol for every case. In the current incarnation of the Rolling Stone header they say:

We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie's request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account. In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment – the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day. We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.

I'm torn, certainly in this case it did not serve the victim that they did not seek this confirmation, but it's also clear they failed on multiple fronts in confirming the story, including the date of the event which does not appear consistent with a social event hosted at the fraternity Jackie alleges was the location of the rape. I think this should still be left to the victim but journalists in the future should then take extra care to independently corroborate the details of the event, a failure in this instance. A generalization that there should be one way to perform this kind of reporting seems crude, and a poor fit for reporting on such a difficult and sensitive topic for survivors. I think if RS had done a better job confirming the story this would not have been a problem, but only in the face of the holes in Jackie's particular story does it seem so glaring. There is no doubt that in future reporting the pendulum will swing towards required interviews with the alleged attackers, this strikes me as a disservice as there is more than one way to skin this cat.

So what have we learned? What can be done better in the future? The consensus seems to be that Rolling Stone screwed up and it isn't Jackie's fault. The evidence seems to be that Jackie was sexually-assaulted, but in the time since she has expanded her story in the retelling. This is not her fault, this is a very human failing, memory is fluid, and her experience traumatic. Many (including Bradley)have pointed out we will likely never figure out the "truth" now at this late date, but dismissing her story as a "hoax" is also likely a disservice to the truth.

I believe, as in my original "never event" article is that the problem rape on campus is one of inadequate data. Slate has an interesting summary of the research although I strongly disagree with their repetition of the MRA nonsense that "forced kissing" is somehow not sexual assault. Minimizing acts of sexual assault that fall short of penetration is ridiculous. Non-consensual kissing, groping, fondling, grabbing etc., is assault, and it's sexual. That aspect of the RS article actually still stands. Colleges and universities should not be internally adjudicating violent crimes in kangaroo courts, it's a disservice to victims and the accused. It hides the data on rape, while abusing the due process civil rights of those accused of crimes. They just have no damn business getting involved in judging any serious criminal infractions.

And there may be some good that comes of this in the form of a new bipartisan bill which may prevent colleges from hiding the data.

On Wednesday morning, eight senators announced the bill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, said the legislation would impose significant financial penalties on colleges for noncompliance with new federal mandates to release data about sexual violence on campus.

Every college would be required to participate in the survey and publish results online, and the penalty for colleges that don’t report sexual assault crimes, as required by the Clery Act, would increase to $150,000 from $35,000 per violation.
Colleges would be required to supply confidential advisers to victims and train counselors. Athletic departments would not be allowed to handle sexual assault complaints. Colleges would need to coordinate a uniform plan with local law enforcement agencies. And the bill would provide federal funding to create and distribute an inexpensive, anonymous annual survey that asks all undergraduate students about experiences with sexual violence. Parents and students would be able to see the data, which may influence their decisions when applying to college.

“Right now schools have reason to repress reporting and be focused on public image rather than being focused on the problem, because there is no real penalty for not accurately reporting and there is no standardized survey,” said Nancy Cantalupo, a research fellow with the Victim Rights Law Center and a researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, who acted as an informal consultant during some stages of the bill’s creation.

Ms. Dauber says transparency is the single most important change that Congress could bring about. “Absent transparency, we don’t know what problem we are trying to solve and we have no idea how to solve it,” she said. “We are just fumbling around in the dark. When you want to change, you take an honest inventory of your situation.”

Damn right. So hopefully there is a silver-lining in this ordeal.


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One thing that I have not seen discussed in the fallout of the article is the campus songs that were quoted as sort of section headers. They were all deeply disturbing to me as a woman, and they *alone* tell me I don't want either of my daughters going to that school, because they trivialize sexual consent to a disturbingly frank degree. With things like the infamous chant of "no means yes, yes means anal", I find myself wondering why anybody could be remotely surprised that sexual assaults might be widespread at UVA.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 10 Dec 2014 #permalink

Uh oh, a new Washington Post story on Jackie's gang-rape is chalk full of denialism. Instead of just going and just arresting any chiselled young blonde fratboy there instead obsessing over the "truth" of poor Jackie's 7+2 on 1 attack. Seems she was catfishing some guy she liked by making up an entire persona in the lead up to her attack. Just because Jackie created this fictional man doesn't mean that when this same man rapes her with the help of 8 fictional friends that the rape hasn't really happened.

Men just don't get it. They are obsessed with truth and evidence when all they should be doing is arresting the frat boys who were too snobby to date Jackie so that she could have had an actual rape to gain social status from in her support group.

By Rocks Off (not verified) on 10 Dec 2014 #permalink

It is now time for you to appologize to Jonah Goldberg and Richard Bradley. They were right and you were wrong.

It's what an honest man would do.

By the same token it could be argued since it's the burden of the victim and his or her lawyer to prove that a crime has taken place means there's not a lot of incentive to bring the matter to the police unless the evidence is overwhelming. And for the most part that's true who knows how many crimes are committed but the victim and offender know it'll never go to court to due insufficient evidence?